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Thursday, June 19, 2008

How Many Law Schools Do We Need?

I can’t resist flagging How many law schools do we need?, from the The Buffalo News. The article charts reaction to the State of New York’s decision to set aside $50 million to support three new law schools (to be affiliated with St. John Fisher College, SUNY Stony Brook and SUNY Binghamton) and picks up on many of the themes in September’s Wall Street Journal article lamenting the plight of un- or under-employed, debt-ridden law school graduates.

Most notably, the article includes some remarkably frank quotes from the local legal community (some of whom have ties to the University of Buffalo Law School, which could face competition for funds and/or students from the proposed state schools):

* “There is no room, or reason, to create struggling law schools, which will produce mediocre attorneys.” Makau W. Mutua, dean, University of Buffalo Law School.
* “We don’t need more law schools. . . . We may need better-trained lawyers, and brand new law schools aren’t going to provide better-trained lawyers.” Cheryl Smith Fisher, outgoing president, Bar Association of Erie County.
* “Creating just another law school that was not a well-regarded one, or not an upper-tier law school, would not necessarily benefit this community, and might well dilute the quality of the profession.” Thomas G. Smith, president, Monroe County Bar Association.

These comments seem to go beyond a now-familiar critique -- that increasing numbers of law school graduates and a tightening economy make it difficult for graduates of lower tier schools, many with astronomical debt, to find good work -- by further suggesting that lower tier schools can be expected to produce subpar attorneys. I pass no judgment on this proposition but note that, if accepted, it somewhat changes the debate. If the only issue is that law schools are producing too many able attorneys for the market to absorb (or absorb at salaries commensurate with law school debt), then making sure that applicants are provided with a realistic assessment of their employment prospects would (as suggested by the WSJ) seem to be a reasonable response. However, if an underlying issue is that law schools that produce unqualified graduates are proliferating, then stiffening accreditation and/or bar standards might also be necessary to address the problem.

Posted by Katrina Kuh on June 19, 2008 at 02:50 PM | Permalink


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this is like debating whether the nba should expand to 200 teams. whatever you might think of the quality of instruction, surely we can agree that the pool of real legal talent is already stretched very very thin by the 200ish law schools we have. It's not a demand problem. Stupid lawyers and smart lawyers are not remotely close substitutes.

Posted by: Colin | Jun 24, 2008 11:56:12 AM

I don't see how stiffening bar standards would change a thing. Theoretically, if those law schools really are producing bad potential lawyers, then those additional graduates in the bar pool aren't passing the bar *as currently configured*. And if they're passing the bar despite being poor lawyers, then that just shows the foolishness of the bar we have now -- the call, then, would be for a *better* bar, not a harder one.

The same argument applies to accreditation: if a school is producing bad lawyer after bad lawyer, then presumably it can't maintain accreditation; and if it somehow is maintaining accreditation, then something's wrong with the system.

Posted by: Jason W. | Jun 21, 2008 1:30:53 AM

I don't think the issue is confined to being either too many able attorneys or the creation of a new law school that produces unqualified graduates, as may be implied (unintentionally) by your last paragraph. We see these issues confronted with any new law school, to widely varying degrees. What's distinctive about this situation is the public funding angle, and the likelihood that the State of New York is diluting its support for legal education to the point that it harms schools like Buffalo. Buffalo and its supporters are claiming that New York and its citizens will be better served by putting their eggs in fewer baskets; implicitly, this is a claim that New York is better off favoring quality over quantity, above and beyond satisfying any minimum standards. This claim may be self-interested, but I haven't seen any response to it -- and it has intuitive appeal, given the relative costliness of building a new institution as opposed to helping existing ones.

Posted by: Edward Swaine | Jun 19, 2008 3:33:22 PM

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